Born in Christchurch in 1940, Sir Ian received an Arts Foundation Icon Award in 2013. His early strengths in art and mathematics shaped the notion of a future career path when it was suggested by a local teacher that he might become an architect. He was seven years old. As he grew older he became interested in the strong local ‘Brutalist' architecture of Miles Warren, Maurice Mahoney, Peter Beaven and others, and while studying for his Diploma of Architecture at Auckland University, he was further influenced by the divergent work and ideas of European architects Antoni Gaudi, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Aldo van Eyck.
Following summer work at the Christchurch office of Warren & Mahoney, Sir Ian's professional career began in the Auckland firm Stephenson and Turner Ltd in 1962, and in 1963 he and his new wife Clare moved to Wellington. After five years at Structon Group, and a controversial dismissal, he set up practice from his home in Khandallah, and in July 1968 the firm of Athfield Architects was born.
From the outset Sir Ian Athfield and Athfield Architects were designing residential, commercial, cultural and civic buildings which often defied both regulations and accepted norms. Boundaries were continually pushed, and humour injected, and this is nowhere more evident than in his own home in Amritsar Street, acknowledged by Ath as ‘probably his most important building', and which now accommodates a whole community of family, architectural staff, builders, children, animals and beehives.
As founding principal, Sir Ian Athfield headed the company for forty five years, and during that period he was responsible for the majority of design direction in office. As well as his contribution to the design of a broad range of projects throughout New Zealand, in 1976 Ath won an international Design Competition for Housing in Manila, the Philippines. He was involved in a teaching fellowship with Victoria University of Wellington, was a keynote speaker at various international conferences and has judged numerous architectural / urban design competitions. He was in great demand as a guest speaker in New Zealand among educational, civic, commercial and charitable organisations.
Under his directorship, Athfield Architects won well over 100 design awards and has also been the subject of a number of books, magazine articles and documentaries along with a recent exhibition at Wellington's City Gallery. Ath also conducted a number of international Master Classes at his Awaroa property.
In 2004 Sir Ian was the recipient of the New Zealand Institute of Architects' highest honour, the Gold Medal, and from 2006 - 2008 he was president of the NZIA. In 2006 he became the first New Zealand architect to be registered as an APEC Architect. Ath was recently a member of the Auckland City Property Enterprise Board, advisor to Auckland's Aotea Square development, and a member of the Assessment Panel for the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery master plan. He had recently been serving on the Board of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust and was made NZIA Architectural Ambassador to Christchurch soon after the September 2010 earthquake to provide advice and coordination during the rebuild and restoration process. In 2012 Ath was the recipient of the DINZ John Britten Black Pin Award for services to New Zealand Design.
Sir Ian Athfield was named a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2014 New Year's Honours List.